The idea behind setting the grid in Grand Prix racing is simple: after two 15 minute sessions, the rider who sets the fastest lap gets to start from pole position, the other riders ranked in order of their best lap times. Of course, the fact that qualifying is split into two sessions to prevent people using tows to artificially boost their starting positions (more on that later) is already a distortion, as the quickest riders left in Q1 have sometimes posted faster times than those who made it through to Q2.
Sometimes, though, the rules intervene to create an egregious breach of the idea that the rider on pole is the quickest rider on the grid. Riders have laps taken away from them for all sorts of reasons, and the grid is set by those who adhered most strictly to the rules. As Race Direction gets ever more technology at its disposal to help assess infractions of the rules, the breaches it finds look more and more petty and mean-spirited, no matter the intention of the regulations. And sometimes, the choices made by track designers, on where to put the marshal posts and flag stations, can make adhering to the rules nigh on impossible.
And so it happens that the riders responsible for the fastest ever lap and the second fastest ever lap around Portimão will be starting from the fourth row of the grid, while pole and the new outright lap record go to the rider with the third quickest lap of the Circuito do Algarve. Pecco Bagnaia had a truly astonishing lap taken away for not responding to a yellow flag, while Maverick Viñales had his best lap taken away for exceeding track limits.
Both these rules are there for good reasons: yellow flags are waved to warn of danger on the track or in the gravel, such as a fallen rider. The last thing you want is for riders to crash in the same spot as someone already in the gravel, their bikes imperiling the stricken riders and marshals helping to clear them from the gravel traps.
Lessons from history
There have been plenty of examples of the dangers involved, but two spring immediately to mind. The first was when Franco Morbidelli crashed on Silverstone's treacherous wet surface in 2018, his bike flying into the gravel where Tito Rabat was already standing after having just crashed in precisely the same spot. In that case, the problem wasn't that Morbidelli was ignoring a yellow flag, but that conditions were simply unsafe.
The second was Marc Márquez ignoring waved yellows on the approach to Vale at Silverstone in 2013, where Cal Crutchlow had crashed previously. Márquez lost the front and his bike flew through the gravel, scattering marshals out of the way. If it wasn't for the excellent training the RaceSafe marshals who staff British motorcycle racing events (and assist at many overseas races), the outcome could have been much worse. Thanks to the spotter system employed, everyone could get out of the way before Márquez' Honda arrived.
So the yellow flag rules is incredibly important, and is there to avoid real-world consequences. But if riders are to comply with it, then first they have to see the yellow flags. In Pecco Bagnaia's case, he can make a credible argument that it was almost impossible for him to do just that.
What happened was that Miguel Oliveira suffered a crash at Turn 9, and yellow flags were being waved at the marshal post just before that corner. But the marshal post there is on the right-hand side of the track. That is a logical point given that riders are likely to crash on the outside of the left-hander at Turn 9, and marshals need to be able to get to fallen bikes in the gravel trap.
But as you can see from the onboard footage from Bagnaia's Ducati, the Italian is looking to his left, through the corner looking for the right line. He is just starting to hang off the Desmosedici, and entirely focused to his left. Waving flags or using LED light panels may not be enough to catch the attention of a rider chasing a pole record through that part of the track. Replicating LED lights in the riders' sight line on the left seems like a sensible thing to do.
Maverick Viñales' crimes look far more trivial than the infraction committed by Pecco Bagnaia. Race Direction enforce track limits to prevent riders making use of the hard standing on the outside of corners to run a wider line and carry more speed. And as tracks have added more and more hard standing, so enforcing track limits has become a more pressing concern.
The first step beyond just watching the standard footage from the Dorna and CCTV cameras was the addition of special cameras watching on the outside at corners particularly prone to see riders try to use the extra space. But that still relied on an element of human judgment, trying to distinguish whether one wheel or both had gone over the edge of the kerbs and touched the green area just beyond.
And so a new tool has been added to Race Direction's arsenal. Pressure sensors have been placed on the outside of certain corners, capable of detecting even the smallest infraction of the rules. The decision is now black and white, with the human element removed.
In the case of Maverick Viñales, that seemed extraordinarily harsh. Viewing the footage and zooming in close (as Moto2 commentator Neil Morrison did) it is almost impossible to see how Viñales might have strayed over the line. Were we still using the old system of cameras, Viñales might have been given the benefit of the doubt. But we aren't, so he wasn't.
Neither Bagnaia nor Viñales were happy to have such outstanding laps taken away, though Bagnaia was a fraction more phlegmatic about the whole affair. The Ducati Lenovo team rider did point out the difficulties posed by the placing of the marshal post. "You come from a downhill, the yellow flag is on the right side and I was already leaning to prepare for the corner on the left side. So it was impossible to see," Bagnaia explained. "Marini, who was behind me, said to me the same. He also didn't see the yellow flag. So it was impossible, but in any case this is the rule and we have to follow it."
Right to reply
Viñales was a good deal angrier, both at having his best lap taken away from him, and from not having any recourse to appeal or discuss the decision with Race Direction or the FIM Stewards' Panel. At first, he didn't believe that his punishment was due to him exceeding track limits.
"Honestly, I thought it was a yellow flag," Viñales told us. "And when I went into the box, they said, 'No, it's because you touched the green', and I said, 'it's impossible, I never touched the green', because I didn't touch it. I mean, I know when I touch the green, and I didn't touch it. Anyway, at the end, these are the rules, and it's one opinion, you can't say anything about it, you can't protest."
When Race Direction first explained the new system to the riders, Viñales was left believing there would be human oversight of any track limits infraction. "Honestly, in the meeting that we had in Qatar, they told us that they are going to review and they are going to check, but at the end, they don't check," he said.
What irked Viñales above all was that riders had no recourse to appeal the decision of the Stewards. He had gone to discuss this with them, but was told the decision was final. "I went there, they were good to show the image, because it's important. But finally, when I saw the image, I told them my opinion more clearly," Viñales said. "You can do nothing. This is the problem. You cannot reply. The decision has been made, and you cannot protest."
A matter of interpretation
Viñales' disappointment seems rooted in a misunderstanding of the rules. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider was complaining that if he did exceed track limits, it was with only a small part of the tire. "When I went there to check, most of the tire is inside, and you cannot understand if the rest of the tire is touching the green. It's impossible to understand," the Spaniard said. "For sure it's not fair, because I did not agree. At least not all of the rear tire was on the green, so most of the tire was on track."
The problem is that Race Direction interprets the phrase "exceeding track limits" to include even the tiniest part of a tire going beyond the edge of the kerb. That, after all, is how you trigger a pressure sensor. So even though Viñales' rear tire only overlapped the kerb at Turn 4 by a couple of millimeters at most, it was still enough to trigger the pressure sensor and incur a track limits penalty, which during practice and qualifying means having your lap canceled.
The strangest thing, perhaps, is that Yamaha team manager Maio Meregalli told Italian Sky TV that he didn't think there were any pressure sensors on the outside of Turn 4, due to the requirements of water drainage. That would contradict the ticker under the TV footage put there by the Dorna TV director, which clearly stated that Viñales had been punished because he had triggered the track limits sensors.
In the end, of course, that is irrelevant. Race Direction records track limit violations, and the FIM Stewards punish them, either by canceling the lap time or by handing out long lap penalties in the race. Race Direction recorded an infringement by Viñales, and the Stewards took his lap time away.
The grid was divided over the penalties for both Viñales and Bagnaia, with arguments on both sides. The yellow flag rule is there to make the sessions safer for riders, Aleix Espargaro pointed out, though he was willing to accept Bagnaia's statement that he hadn't seen the yellow flags. "You cannot go into the brain or eyes of Pecco so I will trust him if he says he couldn't see. But we have rules for safety."
Something similar had happened to him on Friday, Espargaro said. "Yesterday I crashed, in turn 11 I think, a lot of riders closed the throttle. Pecco was one bike in that corner and went wide out of the track when I was in the gravel trying to pick up the bike with the marshals. So the rule is the rule and I think Dorna have to be even more strict because now they are very fast to remove the yellow flag, so if there is a yellow it's because somebody is on the ground and if they crash, you can kill a marshal. So I feel sorry for them because I know they did an incredible lap, but it's very dangerous."
Brad Binder was much more sympathetic to Bagnaia, having suffered the same fate in Qatar. "It’s harsh to say the least," the KTM rider told us. "I think we’ve all had times, especially last year and this year, when we’ve been on a good lap and it’s been taken away due to a yellow flag. It happens several time over a weekend to people regardless of the session. It’s just really unlucky that the super lap gets taken away because there is a flag out."
Valentino Rossi was also sympathetic to Bagnaia, who is a member of Rossi's VR46 Riders Academy. Visibility was a problem, Rossi said, and could be addressed by using light panels rather than just flags. "I think that first of all we need to use the light panel. In Qatar we had the light panels, also here in Portimão," Rossi told the media. "I think the light panel can make the difference because it's very difficult to see the yellow flag, it's quite impossible to see the yellow flag, where the yellow flag was for Pecco because the turn is on the left and you are already on the left part of the bike looking left and the flag is on the right. So it's quite impossible. But this is the rule. The yellow flag is for safety. I don’t know if when Pecco passed Oliveira was still in the gravel or not, but it's like this."
Rules are rules
The three riders were equally divided over Maverick Viñales' track limits infraction, though all agreed that there was little to be done about it. Aleix Espargaro felt that at least the system with pressure sensors gave a much clearer decision than the old system where the Stewards had to judge camera images.
"In the past, it was very difficult for them to understand with three cameras if the bike was touching, but now we have sensors," the Aprilia rider said. "You just need to touch one millimeter to put one gram of weight and the sensor will bleep and the lap is canceled. The technology is there." It was clear to Espargaro that Viñales had not gained any time on that lap. "I also feel sorry for Maverick because in reality he gained nothing, but there is a rule, a limit and you cannot go over."
Valentino Rossi believed that if Viñales had done the same thing last year, he would have gotten away with it. "For the track limits, this year it's a lot more strict because now they put some sensors on the green and the sensors understand if you touch it," Rossi said. "Because looking at Maverick last year, it would be a good lap, because he touched the kerb. But the sensors say like this so everybody needs to stay a little bit more far from the green."
Brad Binder didn't believe it would change the way anyone would ride, however. "Definitely not," the South African said. "You just really hope you don’t touch it on a good lap." He hadn't seen Viñales' lap, but he knew from first hand just how sensitive the system could be. "Sometimes the slightest little thing you don’t feel, the sensors pick up. Like in Qatar, I had that in the first qualifying. The guys said 'hey, you had your lap canceled' and I was convinced I hadn’t. When you watch the video you see it and you might have touched it not enough to realize, but it’s there. The rule is that if you touch the green, then you touch the green. As little or as much it may be then it’s the rules."
To some extent, Fabio Quartararo inheriting pole after Viñales and Bagnaia had their lap times canceled does the state of play in MotoGP more justice than if they had taken the first two positions. In the press conference, the Frenchman tacitly acknowledged that the pole had been gifted to him. "This pole position is not exactly the same as the other ones, but like I said before, the most important was to start from the front row and we achieved our goal."
But he immediately pointed out that he had the race pace to deserve it. "Most of all, the super thing was the pace from this morning with the old tire, also testing the tires in the afternoon," the Petronas Yamaha rider told the press conference. "The pace was great. With used tire this morning I could push a little bit more, but we wanted to be more on the safe side of the tire and was great. I’m so happy about the pace and the job from the team."
He had tried both the hard and the medium rear tire in FP4, and his pace was strong on both. "It looks like both tires are working well. Right now I’m more into the medium, but tomorrow we will see if we will try the hard in the warm up. I’m feeling confident with both tires. I feel like if we go with the hard over the medium, both are great options for the race."
Though he had used a new medium and a new hard for FP4, his pace was impressive. He was the only rider to dip under 1'40 and into the 1'39s. He did so not just once, however, but repeatedly on both tires, eventually posting a total of 8 laps in the 1'39s. The rest of the field couldn't manage a single lap sub 1'40.
Johann Zarco qualified third on the grid, and he too had very strong pace. On his final run in FP4, he posted a 1'40.073 on a tire with 25 laps, race distance on it. The Frenchman has been strong throughout the weekend at Portimão, and coming off two second places in the first two races and as championship leader, he is bursting with confidence.
Who else looks to have pace? Franco Morbidelli, Miguel Oliveira, and Maverick Viñales, to start off with. In FP4, Viñales went out on already very used tires, ending up on the 30th lap of a set of mediums and still posting a 1'40.395. "We have the rhythm, we have everything," Viñales said. "With a used tire I was able to be in 1'40 low, which is a great lap time."
The improvement of the pace was in part down to better grip on the track and the steps forward Yamaha have made with electronics and engine braking, Viñales explained. Honestly, we've been working very hard on the first touch of the gas, because last year, it was a little bit aggressive and we broke traction a lot," the Spaniard told us. "But somehow this year it's a little bit better, we accomplished to be more smooth on the beginning, which gives us a little bit more traction."
The electronics needed to be adjusted for each circuit, but so far, they were working well everywhere, Viñales said. "Depending on the track, it gives us more traction, but for example in Doha, because of the tire, you could put a lot of power from the beginning. So it's something we worked on, this weekend we worked a lot on the engine brake, because finally in Qatar before the race, we did hundreds of laps and the engine brake was clear. But here we worked really hard and the team ended with a good result."
Franco Morbidelli has found the pace he lost in the first two races, but is still not entirely happy. "About the setting we’ve been going up and down, sideways to restore the feeling of last year," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "Actually, to get back that feeling, the bike is different. I don’t know why. Maybe I changed. Maybe something changed. But I don’t want to think about it now the feeling is back now and I can ride something that I know and I don’t want to think too much about it."
The problem was that they other factories had made a big step forward compared to him, Morbidelli explained. "We found that our pace is better than last year, at least in FP4, it was better than last year. The problem is the Ducatis, the Yamahas, especially the Ducatis and the Yamahas, but also the Suzukis, are I think stronger than last year. It’s a hard task to keep up but we will try."
In English, Morbidelli merely hinted at his unhappiness with the current situation, where he finds himself riding a much older Yamaha despite finishing ahead of all three factory-spec Yamahas in 2020. In Italian, he was a bit more blunt about it. "The situation is irritating me, and I can't hide it," he said. "But I always try to stay focused on what I have to do."
Going, going, gone?
But he also alluded to his future, one which may not automatically include the Petronas Yamaha team. "As for my future, VR46 will take care of it, but I will take care of it together with Gianluca," he said referring to the rider manager employed by the VR46 Rider Academy. "I certainly want to secure the best future for myself, both technically and emotionally." With the VR46 team set to step up to expand their current presence to a two-man team in 2022, and rumors of negotiations with Suzuki, Morbidelli may be eyeing his chances outside of Petronas.
Who holds the strongest cards in the race on Sunday? The Yamahas have gotten stronger as the weekend went on, not least because as the grip has improved, they have been able to exploit both their corner speed and their acceleration. Their problem is that there are a brace of Ducatis at the front, with Johann Zarco on the front row, and Jack Miller on the second row. The Ducatis have proved capable of getting lightning starts, and getting past them will not be easy, especially at a track like Portimão.
Then there is the wildcard that is Marc Márquez. The returning Repsol Honda rider showed solid pace in FP4, posting a bunch of low 1'40s on used tires. He also managed to get out of Q1 and make it into Q2, eventually qualifying sixth on the grid after Bagnaia and Viñales had their laps taken away from them.
But the effort had taken a lot out of him. Márquez only did a single run in Q2, having already stressed his recovering arm by having to push in Q1. He shook his arm as he walked to the bike, and pushed and stretched it as he waited. Riding at a consistent pace was doable, but the additional stress of pushing for a very fast lap quickly overloaded the muscles in his arm, the Repsol Honda rider explained.
"I feel worse today than yesterday," Márquez told the media. "This is something that already the doctors and the physios expected, that is a natural thing. They say that tomorrow should be worse but we will see." The humerus in his upper arm that he had fractured last year was fine, it was everything else in the arm which was troubling him. "The most important thing is the bone is good, I don’t have pain there. But the muscles, the fingers, the elbow, the arm pump, is where I’m struggling more now. Today I did my maximum force three times, in FP3, in qualifying 1 and in qualifying 2. But it’s like this and tomorrow we will see for the race."
The biggest problem was the strength he was missing in the right arm. "It’s lack of muscle, power," he said. He couldn't define the difference between his left and right arms, but he was very aware of it. "I cannot say 10% because it’s difficult. But in the gym I’m working with different weights on left and right. I cannot have the same weights on the right arm. Then on the bike this is something that is there. Nearly all the corners are on right at this circuit."
That needed him to adapt his riding, and his team to adapt the bike, Márquez explained. "The main difference is my position on the bike. It’s true that in the left corners I start to feel the front tire like I like. I am playing and I like it. In the right corners, still I’m pushing too much on the brakes. On the brakes, which is where you can play with the front tire, the position of the body is not the correct one. And I cannot load the front and I cannot push with the arm."
Practice and qualifying was one thing, but the race is another, Márquez said. "The question mark is tomorrow in the race... 25 laps. It will be very long! I will say that I’ll try to enjoy it but I won’t enjoy. I will suffer. But this is like this and we already know coming here to Portimao, that now we are more in the real situation with the arm."
How Márquez ended up in sixth place on the grid is a tale unto itself. To make it through from Q1 to Q2, he had latched on to Joan Mir and used him as a reference point, ending up with the best time set behind Mir, the Suzuki Ecstar rider making it through as second fastest in Q1.
Márquez and Mir glossed over the issue in their English debriefs, but were a little more honest when speaking to the Spanish media. "We normally don’t like it if someone is following us in that way," Joan Mir said in English. "But it’s like this. We know Marc always likes to play these types of games. The problem is if we stop then he’ll stop and we can make a dangerous situation. It’s better to push in front and then that’s it."
In Spanish, he had harsher words for Márquez. "We already know that Marc likes to do this to get behind," Mir told Spanish media. "Today he has done it with me and usually he always does it with someone, to get behind them and play this game. For this in Moto3 they penalize. Not him and here they do not penalize. But I did my thing and he has not made me nervous at all. He started a lot further ahead, he cut off, got behind, he annoyed me on the first lap of my time attack, because he started slow, I ran into him halfway down the track and I have already lost my lap. Then I started to push, he took advantage of my tow. In Moto3 they penalize you for this and surely in Moto2 as well, but in MotoGP not yet."
Márquez denied he had slowed Mir down, but he admitted to seeking a tow from the Spaniard. "At no time have I slowed down more than normal. I think the first lap I did in Q1 was two or three seconds slower than a normal time. In the end, I saved my skin, which is what I had to do."
He accepted that seeking a tow is behavior which is normally frowned upon – including by Márquez himself – but the Repsol Honda rider admitted it was the only way he could be sure of getting through to Q2. "I know that it is not done or that it makes a rider angry when you do it, but they have done it to me many times when I was fully fit," Márquez said. "Now I needed it, I have done the whole weekend riding and riding alone. In Q1 I needed to know where I was losing and I followed another bike, and I chose the World Champion, the one who was riding the best in Q1." He could have avoided criticism by following his brother Alex, he said. "I could have chosen my brother too, who would have kept quiet," Márquez laughed. "I have chosen the best. I have come out of box, we have met on track and I have done it."
In Q2, Márquez did the same again, this time with Mir's Suzuki Ecstar teammate Alex Rins. Rins was a little more relaxed about having Márquez follow him. "As you said, Marc was waiting for us on the second tire. We went together on the pit lane at 60kph. We are like horses waiting for the race," Rins joked. "Marc is so intelligent doing those things. Little by little I’m taking this experience. I was playing a bit his game. The most important was we were respecting each other in the time. In end I’m happy, I was pushing hard along in front and I did the lap time."
The fact that Marc Márquez needed a tow to get through to Q2 tells us that he is still not completely back to full fitness. And the fact that he grabbed a tow when he needed to also tells us that he isn't afraid to do what needs to be done. That he should make sure to get a tow from Joan Mir, the reigning champion, is a sign that Márquez is as ruthless as ever, and never misses a chance to try to get into the heads of his rivals.
What surprised me was the meekness with which Márquez' return was greed by his rivals. You would think that anyone with pretensions of the 2021 MotoGP title - Joan Mir, Fabio Quartararo, Jack Miller – would have made sure that Márquez knew that he was joining them on track and not the other way around. Yet none of them sought the Repsol Honda rider out during practice, and showed him a wheel, cut off his line, followed him around. Nobody let him know he was no longer the boss, and if he wanted to reclaim his spot on top of of the anthill, he would have to go through them.
Marc Márquez has a reputation for physically intimidating his rivals. During practice at Portimão, his rivals had the ideal opportunity to return the favor, at a time when Márquez was at his psychologically most fragile. Not taking advantage of that seems like a missed opportunity.
There is always the race, of course. Márquez' best hope of survival may be to try to latch on to a fast rider, and try to follow them home to score as many points as possible. Using them as a reference makes it that little bit easier to hustle around the Portimão circuit, and conserve energy for the next race at Jerez in two weeks time. There is still a lot of the season left.
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